Mississippi Grind co-writers/directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck feel like they come from another era in the best possible sense. Their films never get lost in spectacle or sentimentality. Their influences are the character driven movies of the early 70s like Five Easy Pieces or Fat City that tried to put people on screen with all of their messy complexities rather than fictional characters. Probably still best known for their striking debut Half Nelson (the one with Ryan Gosling as an inspiring teacher with a crack habbit), but their follow up Sugar (about a Dominican baseball player struggling to find his place in America) was just as strong, and even their attempt to make something moderately mainstream with It’s Kind Of A Funny Story had undeniable charms. Unfortunately when that last Zach Galifianakis movie stalled at the box office, it lead to a long five year wait for their follow-up feature. Thankfully it’s finally here and the wait was worth it.
Mississippi Grind is the tale of a gambling addict who can’t help but lose (Ben Mendelsohn), who hooks up with a rootless charmer who doesn’t care if he loses or frankly, even if he wins (Ryan Reynolds). It’s a throwback to 70s character pieces about gambling like Robert Altman’s extraordinary California Split or James Toback’s (who cameos in Mississippi Grind) autobiographical The Gambler, movies that look at the lifestyle in all of its painful complexities and are more about losing than winning (because, you know, that’s how the gambling win/loss ratio works). Stingingly funny and painfully real, it’s a welcome return from Boden and Fleck that is currently previewing on Direct TV, and will hit theaters on September 25th. Collider got a chance to chat with the filmmakers during their stop at the Toronto International Film Festival, mulling over everything from their research gambling trip, to their interest in hardluck stories, the surprising ease of shooting on film, and more.
Collider: Since you two make movies about such specific worlds and characters, is it important to immerse yourselves within those worlds before writing?
Ryan Fleck: Yeah, definitely. We don’t consider ourselves qualified to make these movies without jumping into that world a little bit. So, we took this trip ourselves. We did it in reverse order, starting the trip down in New Orleans and then moving our way up to Iowa. Along the way we took pictures and wrote down any dialogue we heard that might fit in. We played in poker tables, visited dog tracks, horse tracks, and off-track betting parlours which I definitely didn’t know about. You know, down and dirty places along the Mississippi River.
I read that initially you wrote this as a more overtly comedic movie. I thought it was pretty funny as is, so how did that change and why did you think that was important?
Anna Boden: It sort of happened organically as we were working on the script. Not that there isn’t humor in there. We definitely wanted that. But we stripped away the more overt slapstick moments that we had initially imagined. It eventually swayed a bit more towards are more natural sensibility, which is not very funny.
Well, the gambling advice CD that Gerry insists on listening to in the car rather music definitely made me laugh far too much. Where did that come from?
Fleck: That’s funny. When we were in St. Louis during our trip we sat down with a professional poker player. He was telling us stories and his poker world and eventually he said, “There’s this e-book that you need to know about called 200 Poker Tells by Joe Navarro.” He was a former FBI agent who wrote the book and published it online. So I tracked it down and thought it would be great to make a CD of it. So it actually doesn’t exist. But we contacted Joe and got him to read it for us. That’s actually his voice (Laughs).
Did you write with Ben Mendelsohn and Ryan Reynolds in mind?
Fleck: No we didn’t. But once it came time with cast, one of our producers Lynette Howell had just worked with Ben on A Place Behind The Pines and suggested him. We were like, “Who’s that?” She said, “He’s the guy who played the mechanic.” So we were like, “He’s an actor?” We assumed they’d just found him locally because he looked so natural. We’re always a little embarrassed to admit that because we like to think we know a lot about movies (Laughs), but we didn’t really know him even though he’s a legend in Australia. So of course we went back and watched some of his work and met him and it was clear immediately that he was our guy.
I’m surprised you didn’t Ryan’s role for him because it almost feels a really sad deconstruction of his onscreen persona in a weird way.
Fleck: Yeah, it does a little bit. It kind of fell into that perfectly. We didn’t change much once he signed on, just a bit. But, it really worked out.
How much freedom do you like to give to your actors once you case them since your movies are so focused on character?
Boden: We like to create an atmosphere where people can try whatever they want and experiment. But ultimately people tend to fall on the script and there isn’t a ton of improvisation. There certainly are some improvised moments and we encourage that. If it’s better than what we wrote it’ll be in the movie and if not, it’s out.
Where did all of the extreme superstition material come from because it felt pretty dead on and that sort of thing is easy to push too far?
Fleck: Well, not all gamblers are this way, but many are. When you get on a streak, even when we were playing in those rooms, you kind of lose sight of rationality. Sometimes really bizarre things happen at the table and it’s easy to read too much into it. Sorry, I just had an espresso so I’m a little amped up.
Boden: And I did not, which is the problem here. (Laughs) I’m a very superstitious person. I come from a long line of superstitious people, so it’s not going anywhere. For instance, we have this thing on our movies where if one of the key personnel gets a haircut in the middle of the movie, it’s bad luck. I swear by that.
Do you have a meeting about that with everyone before production?
Boden: Yes and people still break it all the time, but it always ends in disaster.
Fleck: We were fine on Mississippi Grind.
Boden: Well, maybe Mariel lifted the spell.
Fleck: See, this is what we deal with.
I really loved the montages of rotted out buildings and dying Americana that you used to set up each city on the road trip. Was it hard to find those spots now that everything is becoming so homogenized? I’m sure those cities have their Wal-Marts and Starbucks and that plastic culture as well.
Boden: The types of towns that we were attracted to aesthetically are all along the Mississippi so they very old and look oddly untouched.
Fleck: There used to be an industrial infrastructure back at the turn of the century.
Boden: Right, so they were built in a different era and the center of the towns tend to retain that look. Sure, if you drive out from the center you’ll find strip malls and Olive Gardens and all of that.
Fleck: But if you stick close to the city there are all of these amazing remainders of the old industries. Giant warehouses, really cool looking Tom Sawyer stuff.
Boden: Yeah, storefronts that haven’t changed in 50 years. That’s what we were really attracted to, especially when we were trying to make a movie that was a throwback to things like California Split, Scarecrow, The Gambler, or Fat City. These movies from the 70s that really inspired us. So to find those little towns that have storefronts that look like they haven’t changed in 50 years and casinos that look like they haven’t changed in 50 years, and dog tracks, and all these places that lent a certain texture to the movie that we were really attracted to.
Oh yeah. It definitely puts you in a certain headspace. Was it actually overcast every day as well or does it just look like that?
Fleck: No there was some sun, I guess we must have just waited for the clouds to come and then took our shots.
Speaking of those old movies, how did James Toback (writer/director of The Gambler) get involved?
Fleck: We’d crossed paths with him a few times over the years, just through mutual filmmaker friends. He’s always been a fascinating character just filled with stories. He’s one of those people where you know you’ll never get a word in, but you don’t mind because he’s just filled with stories non-stop. You don’t know if any of them or true or if even ounce of them are true, you don’t care. We wanted someone who would bring that feeling to that part, so it felt like a natural fit.
Did you get gambling stories out of him during the research phase?
Fleck: Oh yeah. Hours of them.
Boden: Yeah, he was a serious gambler when he was younger.
Fleck: I think he’s finally cooled off on it now.
I always enjoy the ambiguity of your characters and the way you’re willing to push the line of empathy. That’s such a tricky thing. How do you navigate it? Is something like the scene where Ben Mendelsohn visits his ex-wife’s house a big debate?
Boden: Well, I think in that sort of situation, you just have to trust your actors. If you have the wrong person in that role and that scene, sure you could really lose everyone. But there’s a certain quality that Ben has that makes you root for him no matter what. So that line and that tension is something that we’re always interested in exploring. We want to push our characters to do things that make us question whether we ought to be their friend or even follow them.
Fleck: Right, but it’s also not necessarily always conscious. You have to follow the logic of your characters while you’re writing. I think that’s more important that the audience in these sorts of movies.
Was it difficult to get this movie shot on film? That’s got to be getting trickier all the time.
Fleck: It was definitely a debate. There were numbers that were crunched and when the numbers came back it was more expensive for film and we just had to convince the people paying for it that it would be worth it.
Boden: We did promise that we would pay the difference if we went over budget because of shooting on film. But we didn’t end up going over because as our DP promised us we were able to move faster on film.
Really? I thought it was the other way around.
Boden: Nah, our DP felt that lighting would be more forgiving on HD.
Fleck: It’s one of those things. Different people have different opinions and abilities, but for us it was actually faster.
Since you’ve been working together for 15 years now, is the process almost becoming intuitive between the two of you where you can anticipate what the other is going to say without having to say it?
Fleck: No, no. We always talk about everything. Right?
Boden: I don’t know what you’re talking about. We never disagree.
Fleck: You know, there are the usual arguments and everything. But I think we resolve those disputes much faster because we respect and trust each other more.
Boden: And we normally have that taken care of before we’re on set now. Any discussing is usually over. There are times after takes where we just can look at each other and know without saying anything. But that just comes from working everything out while we’re writing.
Have the fights beforehand and then it’s long over.
Boden: Exactly. That’s how we do it.
Since you’ve done some directing for TV already, have you talked about developing some sort of series? It seems like a natural fit for the type of complicated character work that you like to do.
Fleck: Oh yeah, we’d love to. We’re working on something right now that will hopefully come together. But we don’t know for sure. We just started the process.
Boden: Sufficed to say the idea of following characters over arcs that can last longer than two hours is really exciting to us.
Do you have film scripts banked since there was a bit of a gap between this movie and your last one?
Fleck: We’re writing multiple things, but it’s still early. I’m hoping it won’t be another five years between movies, but we’ll see.
How about that ensemble New York movie inspired by Short Cuts that I head you talk about a while ago.
Fleck: Yeah that was a movie called Hate Mail that we were trying to make before this one. And actually it was the frustration of trying to get that one off the ground that led to us writing Mississippi Grind as a small, two characters on the road movie. The casting process for Hate Mail just got so difficult. Once you lock in one person and then you try to find the next person, you lose the first person and then the financing falls away.
Boden: That’s one thing when you only have to find two people, but when you have six central roles to cast, it gets tough.
Fleck: And it’s not a high concept movie, so they all need to be actors with a bit of a name. It’s always challenging just to try and get two of them, let alone six.